Saying anything even vaguely negative about the JRPG series Ni no Kuni (opens in new tab) is difficult. I mean, just look at it. With its Studio Ghibli looks, the series may as well have been built out of kittens, butterflies, and buttercream frosting. Still, the first game was hard on our namby-pamby Western sensibilities, forcing you to grind through random encounters with a combat system that was half real-time strategy, half turn-based, with just a touch of Pokemon monster-battling. It was the kind of game you started but, eventually, started avoiding after work and never quite got around to finishing.
The good news is Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom has built a slicker, better combat system to go alongside the still-disarming visuals. It's more immediate, and feels so much more satisfying as a result. I got stuck in with a battle with the Wyvern Warlord boss, a surly fellow that Evan - the game's hero and a young king - and Roland meet while hunting for his pirate ally Tani. Gone are the monsters you would send into battle; instead, hero Evan got stuck in with his sword, fired off some special attacks, and collected buffs from small, Pikmin-style creatures - Higgledies - that hung around his ankles during battle.
Miniaturized cuteness is a theme throughout Evan's picture-book world. There's a Pikmin feel to the other new combat system as well: a Skirmish mode that has you pitting tiny, chibi armies against enemies on a battlefield. Evan can command up to four different units - I had archers and sword-fighters - and crash them into opposing troops.The different units group up around Evan, and the trick is to rotate them to get the best match-up. If you've got the advantage, you'll see a helpful blue arrow linking your unit to the enemies, making the mode foolproof. Playing one round of this Skirmish mode was fun, but - as is so often the way with early peeks at JRPGs - it was hard to know how this mode will fit into the overall flow of the campaign and whether or not you'll be skirmishing so often that the novelty will fade.
After getting to try out both sections and do some minor exploring and a little cutscene appreciation, I'm ready to commit to a long-term relationship with Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom. Fortunately, I won't have to wait long, as Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom will be released on PS4 and PC on January 19, 2018.